It's not an easy place to live, but if you play your cards right, it can be a rewarding one. Be safe, be prepared, have friends you can rely on, and you can make a fortune. And though the people there might not seem that friendly to outsiders, there's a sense of community it's hard to find elsewhere. Well, there has to be – between the wolves, the blizzards, the pyroclasms, people have got to look out for one another.
And… I suppose it's beautiful, too. There are places there, where – Skanaster willing – you can tread where nobody else ever has, see caves and cliffs that haven't been seen with human eyes for centuries. At night, the mountains seem like stairways right into the sky…
— Anais Sawell, Royal Envoy to the Heights
A politically volatile yet resource-rich region that depends upon mining profits and community spirit to guard against threats natural, economic, and political.
The Heights is a tough, uncompromising place, and those who live there prize resilience, practicality and community spirit. Travel between the peaks and valleys that compose the Heights can take weeks, with no guarantee of survival. However, much of Esharia depends on the steel produced by miners here, and the unfolding political situation demands the attention of the rest of the country.
The Nobles of the Heights are rather more inclined towards realism than those of the lowlands. The climate of the Heights, combined with the impossibility of travel in inclement weather, puts nobles at considerable risk along with the peasantry – sure, they'll be the last ones to starve, but that doesn't mean starvation isn't a threat. Unity and purpose are necessary for survival, and so nobles will do whatever is necessary to ensure that the people under their care – usually those in a few isolated mining villages – are united and strong. Sometimes this manifests as a more caring, communitarian approach to leadership, and sometimes it results in brutal, uncompromising rule justified by appeal to necessity.
Given the increased mortality rate, it is more common for noble families to adopt lowborn heirs, so as to minimise the odds of dying out. Indeed, when travelling, one heir is traditionally left behind as insurance, lest the whole group perish in snowstorm or pyroclasm. Given the importance which mining yields hold to the region as a whole, and the increased prevalence of adoption, there is a distinctly meritocratic streak to the nobles of the Heights – those who get results can expect good things, bloodline or no, and those that are dead weight tend to come to sticky ends – lazy heirs have been known to be replaced by ambitious adoptees from mining Clades.
Finally, the nobles here are characterised by a sense of detachment from the rest of Esharia, a detachment that brings with it more than a little resentment. They live in inhospitable conditions to obtain materials that are going for ever-decreasing prices, and cannot easily travel between regions in the way that lowland nobles can.
Many of the nobles present in the Heights were in fact banished there, 'offered' remote and inhospitable positions after offending the Queen. This only contributes to the chip that so many of those in the Heights carry on their shoulders.
The Great House of the Heights is currently under the leadership of Grand Duchess Ciliano Morelli, often known as Ninefingers because of her extensively frostbitten right arm. The Morelli family were reassigned land in the mountains in 0EA after the civil war that they rather grievously lost, and have been resentful about it for almost 200 years. The Morellis are proud, resilient, and believe that with the proper preparation, no battle is unwinnable. They are also practical, and look down a little on the other houses that do not have to keep their people safe in such inhospitable conditions.
They also have a particular dislike of Great House Diite, which roundly defeated them in the civil war and has profited from the increasing shift towards craftmanship and trade rather than industry, something that has adversely affected the Morelli's holdings. Resentment between the two has been a near-constant of Esharian politics, and this shows no signs of abating any time soon.
The Morelli are based in the de facto capital of the Heights, the sprawling valley of Stormhalt, known for the tenebrous blue flowers that grow between buildings and up into the peaks. Their crest displays a pair of horses rampant, and their house motto proclaims “From Scars, Strength”.
Not everybody in the Heights is devoted to mining, true, but most of them are, and those that are not – farmers, merchants, and so forth – spend most of their time providing for miners. The risks associated with mining, the colossal importance of excavation, and the extensive history of exploitation by avaricious nobles have led most miners to join their local Clade. The Clades are locally-organised soviet-like groups providing communal support and industrial leverage to their members. These are not a recent development – historical records of the Clades stretch back at least 200 years. As a result, most Clades have a large amount of tacit support among the peasantry and a substantial informational advantage over the nobility, consisting of much-coveted techniques and expertise. The power balance between Clades and nobles tends to define Heights politics in general. Though the Clades do have a significant ability to put pressure on the nobility, mining conditions remain abysmal; the average life expectancy for miners is 31.
The practices of the Clades - how they govern and operate - are not well-known outside of the heights. They acknowledge no official leader, but it is known that the one-eyed miner Cosima, more commonly referred to as Boss, has a lot of sway in Clade politics.
The climate of the Heights is broadly cold and inhospitable. Civilization clings to the valleys, hunkered down against the freezing blizzards that blow across the peaks. Flash snowstorms can render roads impossible to traverse for weeks, and the climate can shut villages off from the rest of the world for months with no real warning. Worse, the snow-choked roads and endless pine forests are home to wolves, bears, and, some say, darker things…
Cold is not the only problem faced by the people of the Heights; the area is in fact a volcanic hotspot, and occasional pyroclastic flows or poisonous eruptions pose a similarly sudden and terrifying danger to the unwary traveller or miner. Many mining expeditions have been lost to the “Quiet Death”, an odourless, invisible gas that occasionally turns up in caves, and once, around fifty years ago, some miners inadvertently breached a primary magma chamber and filled most of the mine with volcanic deposits.
Areas of interest include the Morelli Palace, which sits at the edge of the region, near the holdings of Great House Diite, the politically complex province of Blackwall, a rich mining site with a turbulent political history, and the expansive forest owned by the more cosmopolitan House Greco, said by some to have never been fully mapped.
The inhospitable nature of the Heights has resulted in a populace that tends to be surprisingly religious - though there are no more priests than in more temperate areas, the level of religious involvement among laypeople is significantly greater. The gods of the Heights are a powerful force with the power to make life very difficult for those who displease them – through freezing blizzards, collapsing cliffs, and the occasional volcanic eruption - and so a healthy respect for deities is encouraged. However, the importance of mining means that the people of the Heights believe firmly in humanity's ability to change and reshape gods. The result is religion as symbiosis, stressing the importance of a relationship with the gods founded on mutual respect.
Worship tends to be on a much more local basis than elsewhere in Esharia, given the isolated nature of most settlements. Most small villages will worship their local god, and pay only minimal attention to others – after all, worship is a relationship, and a practical one at that.
The Wilderness, as the name suggests, is the god of all those places not claimed by others – the uncharted path, the wild peak. The Wilderness rewards the daring and stubborn, but is nonetheless uncompromising, inhospitable, and brutal. Though this god is revered across the Heights, it is usually worshipped in a negative sense – supplicants pray for Wilderness to let them pass peacefully, or to have the necessary skills and preparation to withstand the raw power of the unclaimed. Priests of the Wilderness - who often refer to their god as 'Skanaster', an archaic term roughly meaning 'Untouched' - often claim that it predates the other gods, that it owned all the Heights once, and that when humanity has gone, it will do so again. This is a somewhat heretical belief, but the priests never seem to act on it, and so their eccentricities are tolerated.
As Esharia's economy has become more and more trade-focussed, the economic advantages of the Heights have dwindled. Though the Grand Duchess has requested protective tariffs for Esharian steel and ores, these requests are generally laughed off by those in Hashat. The result is that the nobles of the Heights are struggling to maintain their holdings in the face of ever-decreasing yearly product, and this has resulted in miners working longer hours in harsher conditions for less pay. Grand Duchess Morelli has made it known that anybody who can bring economic security to the Heights will be richly rewarded.
In addition, it is rumoured that political tensions have been increasing as a result. Some rumours say that the Blackwall area is in open revolt, but Duchess Morelli - and Blackwall's Overseer, Alessandra Bianchi - insist that such suggestions are nonsensical, and that the situation is, as ever, entirely under control.
The Grand Duchess is now entering her sixtieth year, and despite her persistent illness shows no signs of handing over power to an heir. Morelli is not exactly loved, but she is far from hated; most acknowledge that somebody needs to make the tough decisions, and given her expertise and track record, it makes sense that it be her.
An ancient Hashat scholar once proposed that it is better to be feared than loved; if the rumours about her are to be believed, Bianchi has rather taken that to heart. Known to despise the Greco family.
Greco's position allows him to spend most of his time away from the inhospitable mountains of his home, a perk the foppish Duke has taken full advantage of. Known to despise the Bianchi family.
Everyone calls her that. She's in tight with the Clades. Don't ask what happened to her eye.
They say that on the highest peaks, you can find hedge magicians living in hidden monasteries. Most agree that this is nonsense, but if anything could coax these ascetic figures into making themselves known, it would be the appearance of the Breach.